Program helps students with addictions, need for safe place to learn

First public program opens its doors in Harris County this year

HOUSTON – The classrooms at Archway Academy look like your typical small school.

"Every day at Archway is a beautiful mixture of traditional education," executive director Sasha McLean said. "You know, the kids are taking math and science and English and history. And they're taking the PSATs."

But it's tucked away inside a church in the shadows of the medical center. And the school is also centered around the principles of recovery.

"When we started asking kids where do you have the easiest access to drugs, they would say, 'School.' Where are most of your dealers? They would tell us, 'School,'" McLean said. "So we decided in 2004 that maybe what Houston needed was a school that was devoted specifically to students with drug and alcohol issues."

It's a school for kids who've already been to rehab for things like opioid and other drug addictions, and need a safe place to learn.

"We were created by a group of parents who lost their children to addiction," McLean said.

Stay informed on the latest updates on the epidemic. Subscribe to our Opioid Nation newsletter.

The program at Archway was once one of a handful nationwide. Now it's become a model, copied across the country.

"We have folks from every area of the country that come here and spend time with us to learn what a recovery school is, and to take back what they've learned into their community," McLean said.

They've mentored 15 or 16 schools just over the last five years. The day starts off with a morning check-in process. The students can talk about anything on their minds, from a fight with their parents to a big urge to use drugs.

"That's where the recovery staff is able to put our finger on the pulse of the community. How is everyone doing?" McLean said.

Then, the traditional classes get underway.

"So if they're sitting in a math class and they're having really high anxiety or they start to feel extremely irritable, they know their teacher can call down to our support office and we'll have a recovery coach come to them in their class," McLean said. "Part of the magic of Archway Academy is that half of our staff are in personal recovery from substance use disorders, including myself."

Archway is a private program, one of about 40 in the nation. There are only eight public recovery high schools nationwide.

This year, the first public program opens its doors in Harris County.

James Colbert is the superintendent of the Harris County Department of Education.

"We pretty much understand this will be unprecedented in Harris County in moving in this direction with the current epidemic that's going on right now," Colbert said.

This brand-new recovery school will be open to any high school student in Harris County free of charge.

"This school is not a rehabilitation high school. We will have expected our students to go through some formal rehabilitation process," Colbert said. "Our goal isn't to send them back to high school to which their addiction could've started, but in other words, they can come to our high school to do the recovery process."

It's a 20,000-square-foot facility, currently being renovated from an old school in the Greenspoint area.

"We're going to have a quarter-million-dollar culinary arts facility. We're going to have a gazebo with an oriental garden in the back. Ropes course," Colbert said. "They'll also have a rappel line where students can rappel across the parking lot to here. This is part of the trust activities that they do, but it'll also integrate into PE credit. The moment recovery becomes painful, recovery stops."

Students can request to attend this program directly through their school district. Schools like this rarely have more than 100 kids.

"We really want to get our feet on solid ground, so we're going to start our enrollment with just 30 students. The second year we'll look at doubling that to 60 and the third year perhaps 90," Colbert said. "If necessary, we will build more than one recovery high school down the road."

Back at Archway, McLean agrees recovery high schools are vital for children to break the addiction cycle.

"But every student knows from 8 o' clock to 3 o' clock, they have recovery support people here just waiting to give them whatever it is they need," McLean said.